New piece in the 'French paradox' diet and health puzzle: Cheese metabolism

Figuring out why the French have low cardiovascular disease rates despite a diet high in saturated fats has spurred research and many theories to account for this phenomenon known as the "French paradox." Most explanations focus on wine and lifestyle, but a key role could belong to another French staple: cheese. The evidence, say scientists in ACS' Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, is in cheese metabolism.

Hanne Bertram and colleagues note that recent research on some dairy products' positive effects on health has cast doubt on the once-firm rule that saturated fats are bad for our hearts. For example, one study found that cheese reduced "bad" cholesterol when compared to butter with the same fat content, suggesting that high cheese consumption could help explain the French paradox. To further investigate this possible explanation, Bertram's team looked into how cheese gets digested.

The researchers compared urine and fecal samples from 15 healthy men whose diets either contained cheese or milk, or who ate a control diet with butter but no other dairy products. They found that those who consumed cheese had higher fecal levels of butyrate, a compound produced by gut bacteria. Elevated butyrate levels were linked to a reduction in cholesterol. Their results, they say, suggest a role for gut microbes and further shore up the connection between cheese and the French paradox.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Danish Council for Strategic Research, Arla Foods and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Chemical Society . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Turning to freshwater sources to fight drug-resistant tuberculosis, other infections

The discovery of antibiotics produced by soil fungi and bacteria gave the world life-saving medicine. But new antimicrobials from this resource have become scarce as the threat of drug resistance grows. Now, scientists have started mining lakes and rivers for potential pathogen-fighters, and they've found one from Lake Michigan that is effective against drug-resistant tuberculosis. Their report on the new compound appears in the journal ACS Infectious Diseases.

Brian T. Murphy and colleagues point out that the emergence of drug-resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a serious, global health threat. In 2013, these bacteria caused 210,000 deaths globally and 480,000 infections, of which more than half were in China, India and Russia, according to the World Health Organization.

The development of new antibiotics to fight them has not yet yielded an optimal solution. Despite a few recent successes, scientists are having a hard time finding new candidates from soil-dwelling microbes. Murphy's team wanted to see whether bacteria that live in freshwater -- a habitat that has been largely unexplored for this purpose -- could be a new source of antibiotics.

The researchers screened an extensive collection of freshwater bacteria metabolites and identified a new compound that stops the growth of M. tuberculosis. In lab tests, the compound worked at least as well as current treatments for tuberculosis, and it inhibited drug-resistant strains.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Chemical Society . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Farewell and Follow Me

Beyond Apollo is dead – long live Beyond Apollo.

As some of you may be aware, I’ve been writing online about plans for space missions and programs that didn’t happen for quite a long time – it’ll be 20 years next year, as a matter of fact. That writing has taken place under different titles. From 1996 to 2006, I wrote a webpage called Romance to Reality. That spun off my NASA-published history HUMANS TO MARS. Then came my blog Beyond Apollo, which moved to WIRED in 2012.

Now, I’ve started a new blog called DSFP’s Spaceflight History Blog. I did this so that I could experiment with crowdfunding and expand my scope to take in a broader range of space history topics.

If you have enjoyed reading Beyond Apollo here on WIRED, please watch for my book by the same title, which should hit bookstore shelves in 2016. In the Beyond Apollo blog – which will remain archived here on the WIRED site – I’ve mostly focused on one study document for each post. In BEYOND APOLLO the book, I am writing chapters that link multiple studies, some of which took place decades apart. Some of the posts that I planned to write on this blog have already morphed into parts of chapters in the book.

Thanks to my fellow WIRED Science Bloggers and to all the people at WIRED who’ve put up with me this past three years. It’s been fun and educational being a part of the team.

Thanks most of all to everyone who has read and enjoyed Beyond Apollo. I hope to see you around.

Now Anyone Can Tap the AI Behind Amazon’s Recommendations

Amazon helped show the world how machines can learn. As far back as the late ’90s, the company’s online retail site would track every book, CD, and movie you purchased. As time went on, it would develop a pretty good sense of what you liked, serving up product recommendations its code predicted would catch your eye.

It wasn’t rocket science. It was an algorithm. But it worked. And in the years since, the field of so-called machine learning has evolved in enormous ways, with the likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft training enormous networks of machines to identify faces in photos, recognize the spoken word, and instantly translate conversations from one language to another.

Now, as these tech giants advance the state of the art, there’s a movement afoot to bring machine learning to the business world at large. Many companies are offering online services that anyone can use to build their own recommendation engine, fraud detection system, or some other app powered by machine learning. A startup called MetaMind is democratizing machine learning in this way, as are big names such as Microsoft, Google, and IBM.

On Thursday, Amazon unveiled a similar machine learning service, pitching it as a way for any business to use the AI tech the company has spent years developing inside its own operation. Known as the Amazon Machine Learning Service, it’s designed for software developers “with no experience in machine learning,” AWS head Andy Jassy said on stage at a mini-conference in San Francisco.

The new tool is part of the company’s ever-growing suite of cloud computing services, known as Amazon Web Services, or AWS. Like Google, Microsoft, and IBM, AWS offers all sorts of tools that provide instant access to computing power over the internet. Basically, these are tools that let you build online applications without setting up your own infrastructure. Now, as with its options for servers and storage, you can use Amazon’s machine learning rather than building your own.

Leave the Learning to Us

About two years ago, according to Matt Wood, who helps oversees data science at AWS, Amazon built a machine learning service solely for use inside the company. Basically, this was an online service that let any Amazon engineer built an application that involved machine learning. Among other things, he says, the service now drives a camera-based system that can identify and track products inside the company’s fulfillment centers.

The new service is basically a version of what Amazon was using internally now made available to engineers and businesses outside of Amazon. Judging from Wood’s description, the service is not as sophisticated as what Amazon (or Google or Facebook) use inside their own data centers. But it’s meant to provide the average business with expertise they may not have. It’s focused, he says, on “real-world problems for developers.”

Umair Sadiq, a software engineer at tech giant nVidia who dabbles in machine learning, likes the idea of the service. But he points out that if the tools offered by the service are too general, they may not be all that useful. “There isn’t that much rocket science in machine learning in general,” he says.

Deep Learning

According to Wood, the service is best used to build things like recommendation engines or fraud detection. For example, if you’re running a retail app, Wood says, you can use the service to detect fraudulent orders.

In this light, the service sounds similar to Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning Service. But Joseph Sirosh, the Microsoft vice president who oversees Azure Machine Learning and once worked at Amazon, says Microsoft’s service also offers the kind of “deep learning” algorithms that are driving things like Skype’s real-time translation tool or Facebook’s face recognition system.

Deep learning—a technology that essentially provides a more complex breed of machine learning via massive networks of computers—is the next frontier. This is also the sort of thing offered by MetaMind, with a special emphasis on natural language processing—i.e. the ability of machines to understand natural language. “That,” says Sadiq, “I do like.”

LinkedIn’s CEO on How Its $1.5B Buy Will Make You Smarter

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner speaks during a panel discussion at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2015 conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2014. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner speaks during a panel discussion at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2015 conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2014. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Online job-training site Lynda has built a library of more than 6,300 courses that teach business and technology skills from better navigating Excel to using design software. And now that library belongs to LinkedIn. The $1.5 billion acquisition, which is the largest in LinkedIn’s history, is part of CEO Jeff Weiner’s master plan to make LinkedIn not just a resume repository, but a place for professionals to manage their careers and increasingly, learn new skills—especially in the world’s fastest-growing economies.

In the last year, LinkedIn has more than doubled its Chinese user base, but still only 9 million of its 347 million members are in China. Weiner believes Lynda could be critical to helping it expand there, and in other areas of the emerging world. “Think about what this coursework could mean for people graduating from school and trying to figure out their career paths in these developing economies,” he told WIRED in an interview today, just after announcing the Lynda acquisition. “We think it could be gamechanging.”

Lynda’s customers include individuals, businesses, government and universities, who purchase subscriptions to access its courses. The company has mastered a low-cost production process for high quality content, which it produces in its Santa Barbara offices as well as in a production studio in Austria. So far, Lynda offers courses in Spanish, German, French and Japanese in addition to English, and Weiner says LinkedIn plans to expand. “If we translate the current English coursework on leadership into Chinese, for example, we’re going to add value,” says Weiner. “Then you start thinking about local presence in these markets. What are the skills that are most in demand in the Chinese workforce?”

More Than A Résumé

To make LinkedIn more than a place to look for jobs and post a résumé, Weiner has been doubling down on LinkedIn’s content strategy over the past few years. In October 2012, the company launched its blogging program with 500 LinkedIn influencers; today more than 230 million of its members have the ability to post. In 2013, LinkedIn bought the newsreader Pulse. And it currently hosts 18 million presentations and videos on SlideShare, which it bought in 2012.

Weiner hopes Lynda will amplify these efforts. The company will remain in Santa Barbara where husband-and-wife team Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin will continue to operate it independently, but already Weiner envisions many ways to incorporate Lynda into LinkedIn’s existing products. “You can envision a world where we can identify experts who would make a great addition to the Lynda library,” Weiner said. “We can use our publishing platform as a mechanism to identify our best talent.”

Moreover, Weiner anticipates people may be incentivized to bolster their LinkedIn profiles by adding Lynda credentials. “It’s not just about completing these courses and sharing that you have these skills. It’s also about the coursework itself,” says Weiner. “If you’re a domain expert and you have a Lynda video, what better way to represent your expertise than to show that Lynda video on your LinkedIn profile?”

And of course, all of that interaction will keep LinkedIn’s users returning to the site more often, updating their profile more regularly, and spending more time on it. Thus it becomes a virtuous cycle. LinkedIn will be able to better target potential Lynda customers. When someone updates a profile with a promotion, for example, LinkedIn can send them a congratulatory note, pointing out the promotion may require a new set of skills and suggesting Lynda videos to help develop those skills. LinkedIn can also tag and classify the posts and presentations users watch, so if you’re interested in a particular post, says Weiner, “we can show you the Lynda material that would make the most sense for you,” says Weiner.

That’ll be somewhat useful to knowledge workers plugging away in Colorado, say, or California, where they likely have many options for how to learn new skills. But as Weiner suggests, the real opportunity could be in China and other markets where training is harder to come by. If Weiner has his way, Lynda could help make you smarter. But it could make a lot of other people smarter, too.

NEWS FLASH: AI Startups Are Reinventing Media

No technology trend today comes with more hype than artificial intelligence. Yet AI researchers often joke that most people don’t quite see how it’s changing the world—because as soon as something like Siri or Nest weaves itself into our lives, people forget it’s “artificial.”

That sort of quiet takeover of AI has already begun in an industry we humans tend to hold pretty sacred—news. Last year, Associated Press announced that the majority of its earnings reports will eventually be written with AI-enabled software. While the company argues it will free up reporters to do more analytical work, the question it raises is unsettling: Should we just leave it to the machines to interpret what they see in piles of Big Data and write up the results? Shouldn’t they at least have some human editors?

Like it or not, AI tech is “entering the era of the narrative,” explains Kris Hammond, chief scientist at Narrative Science, one of several “natural language generation” startups emerging as vendors in this nascent field. “These are narratives generated by systems that understand data, that give us information to support the decisions we need to make about tomorrow.”

New apps like Banjo claim to be tapping a new pulse on the world by mining social media, search trends, geo-location data, and other digital signals to produce new forms of breaking news instead of waiting for humans to figure out something is important and start sharing on Facebook or Twitter. Other media ventures are tapping into AI to build stories when events are based around simple facts and human interpretation isn’t required. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times became the first major outlet to report on an earthquake—almost instantaneously—with a bot. Today, companies like Automated Insights and Narrative Science are powering the production of millions of auto-generated “articles,” such as personalized recaps for fantasy sports fans. A similar metrics-based formula can be used to recap a customer’s stock portfolio performance. Here’s a snippet of auto-prose from one of Narrative Science’s investment reports:

“The energy sector was the main contributor to relative performance, led by stock selection in energy equipment and services companies. In terms of individual contributors, a position in energy equipment and services company Oceaneering International was the largest contributor to returns.”

That said, the reason many believe (and AI companies promise) that a writer’s job is still safe is because these stories are purely factual, basically converting raw data into language. Human writers could eventually focus on more complex writing for analysis, opinion, or humor—the layers of news that attract readers. A robot probably can’t offer a good explanation for why Tom Brady seemed distracted in the third quarter. But this is where AI researchers hold up a finger and say, “Yet!”

Over the last five years, processing power and huge corpuses of teaching data have given computers the ability to detect emotions and moods. Soon, perhaps, they will be able to recognize a sideline scuffle or a player’s shift in attitude. Combine that with sensors gathering crowd reactions, the movement and changes in velocity for players and passes, historical statistics that provide context for the game and a player’s performance—and now AI is starting to encroach on analysis as well.

As that definition of “reliable data” continues to expand, so too will AI applications. Here are a few AI-oriented ventures making inroads with content and media:

· Arria — Natural language generation platform that parses complex data sets, in any vertical, from finance to meteorology and writes expert-level reports formerly assigned to human analysts.

· Banjo — Ingests all types of digital signals from Twitter, Facebook and around the Web, to offer up the latest big stories faster than humans can discover them.

· Knotch — AI-based social discovery app that monitors social behavior to capture audience feeling, emotion, and mood.

· Narrative Science — Processes data, from weather to stock prices, to write news stories and insights.

These examples just scratch the surface of what businesses and researchers think AI can do for media. If they come through, these changes will raise complicated questions. What becomes of the media jobs AI eliminates? Who’s on the hook when machine intelligence gets the facts wrong or commits libel? These questions will likely require answers even more intelligent than the technology.

Microbes help produce serotonin in gut

Although serotonin is well known as a brain neurotransmitter, it is estimated that 90 percent of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract. In fact, altered levels of this peripheral serotonin have been linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. New research at Caltech, published in the April 9 issue of the journal Cell, shows that certain bacteria in the gut are important for the production of peripheral serotonin.

"More and more studies are showing that mice or other model organisms with changes in their gut microbes exhibit altered behaviors," explains Elaine Hsiao, research assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and senior author of the study. "We are interested in how microbes communicate with the nervous system. To start, we explored the idea that normal gut microbes could influence levels of neurotransmitters in their hosts."

Peripheral serotonin is produced in the digestive tract by enterochromaffin (EC) cells and also by particular types of immune cells and neurons. Hsiao and her colleagues first wanted to know if gut microbes have any effect on serotonin production in the gut and, if so, in which types of cells. They began by measuring peripheral serotonin levels in mice with normal populations of gut bacteria and also in germ-free mice that lack these resident microbes.

The researchers found that the EC cells from germ-free mice produced approximately 60 percent less serotonin than did their peers with conventional bacterial colonies. When these germ-free mice were recolonized with normal gut microbes, the serotonin levels went back up--showing that the deficit in serotonin can be reversed.

"EC cells are rich sources of serotonin in the gut. What we saw in this experiment is that they appear to depend on microbes to make serotonin--or at least a large portion of it," says Jessica Yano, first author on the paper and a research technician working with Hsiao.

The researchers next wanted to find out whether specific species of bacteria, out of the diverse pool of microbes that inhabit the gut, are interacting with EC cells to make serotonin.

After testing several different single species and groups of known gut microbes, Yano, Hsiao, and colleagues observed that one condition--the presence of a group of approximately 20 species of spore-forming bacteria--elevated serotonin levels in germ-free mice. The mice treated with this group also showed an increase in gastrointestinal motility compared to their germ-free counterparts, and changes in the activation of blood platelets, which are known to use serotonin to promote clotting.

Wanting to home in on mechanisms that could be involved in this interesting collaboration between microbe and host, the researchers began looking for molecules that might be key. They identified several particular metabolites--products of the microbes' metabolism--that were regulated by spore-forming bacteria and that elevated serotonin from EC cells in culture. Furthermore, increasing these metabolites in germ-free mice increased their serotonin levels.

Previous work in the field indicated that some bacteria can make serotonin all by themselves. However, this new study suggests that much of the body's serotonin relies on particular bacteria that interact with the host to produce serotonin, says Yano. "Our work demonstrates that microbes normally present in the gut stimulate host intestinal cells to produce serotonin," she explains.

"While the connections between the microbiome and the immune and metabolic systems are well appreciated, research into the role gut microbes play in shaping the nervous system is an exciting frontier in the biological sciences," says Sarkis K. Mazmanian, Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology and a coauthor on the study. "This work elegantly extends previous seminal research from Caltech in this emerging field."

Additional coauthor Rustem Ismagilov, the Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, adds, "This work illustrates both the richness of chemical interactions between the hosts and their microbial communities, and Dr. Hsiao's scientific breadth and acumen in leading this work."

Serotonin is important for many aspects of human health, but Hsiao cautions that much more research is needed before any of these findings can be translated to the clinic.

"We identified a group of bacteria that, aside from increasing serotonin, likely has other effects yet to be explored," she says. "Also, there are conditions where an excess of peripheral serotonin appears to be detrimental."

Although this study was limited to serotonin in the gut, Hsiao and her team are now investigating how this mechanism might also be important for the developing brain. "Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter and hormone that is involved in a variety of biological processes. The finding that gut microbes modulate serotonin levels raises the interesting prospect of using them to drive changes in biology," says Hsiao.

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The above story is based on materials provided by California Institute of Technology . The original article was written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

What We’ve Learned From True Detective’s Season 2 Trailer

After months and months of speculation—and even a meme/hashtag (#TrueDetectiveSeason2)—we now know what the second season of True Detective looks like. (Short version: It looks dope.)

HBO dropped the first trailer for the network’s gritty crime drama this morning and while it’s nothing but a bunch of mood shots and such, there’s still a lot to be gleaned from its one-minute-exactly runtime. Here’s what we picked up.

1. The new season premieres June 21.

2. Colin Farrell, who plays “compromised” detective Ray Velcoro, has a wicked mustache. (Also, it’ll be hard not to nickname that mustache “Velcro.”)

3. Rachel McAdams, who plays a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective named Ani Bezzerides, is going to be all kinds of awesome and badass in this.

4. McAdams is definitely making “Police” shirts happen this season.

5. There’s definitely municipal planning involved in this plot somehow.

6. Taylor Kitsch (California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop Paul Woodrugh) is not to be messed with.

7. Criminal/entrepreneur (one in the same here?) Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn, does not look like he’s well. (Presumably his life is falling apart, so…)

8. Like the first season, this one will likely involve a lot of drinking and meetings in dark bars.

9. Firth/Velcoro is definitely trying to make bolo ties happen this season.

10. We have to wait until June to figure out what that dude wearing leather gloves and a ski mask in broad daylight wants us to keep quiet about.

Inside the Swift, Strategic World of Used Car Auctions

RY_Autopia_HiRes_11 In Hayward, California, thousands of used cars are sold at auction each week. Ryan Young for WIRED

Once the 2011 Impala has been rolled into place, the bidding begins immediately. Standing near the back, by the free earplug dispenser, I make eye contact with the auctioneer, and quickly look away: He doesn’t need much of a sign to think you want to jack up the price, and I’m just here to watch. A wink, nod, or twitch of the finger is plenty to join the fray.

Clint Esken, one of my guides for the day, bids so subtly I barely notice. It’s strategy: In the small crowd around the Chevy—roughly half a dozen guys, some of them smoking—you don’t want to seem too eager, too willing to pay more. After one final nod, it quiets down, and the auctioneer calls it for Esken, at $9,900. The whole process takes less than a minute, and within another 60 seconds, the next car has taken the Impala’s place and the action has started again.

I’m at 29900 Auction Way in Hayward, California, in the midst of a massive car auction run by vehicle wholesaler Manheim. The sale I just watched is one of a dozen going simultaneously, each 20 yards or so from the next. In the space of one morning, 2,300 cars change hands. (If you’re sticking around for the full three hours, take the earplugs over the headache.) This isn’t a rarity, it’s a weekly event. Americans buy and sell 40 million used cars a year, and this auction is one of many pipelines, usually unseen, feeding that demand.

Launch Slideshow Launch Slideshow



Esken is one of more than 900 professional dealers in Hayward that morning, another 650 are bidding online. He works for DriveTime, an Arizona-based used car dealership that caters to customers with poor credit. His quick fire purchase of the Impala, with 61,000 miles on the odo, is the final play in a process that started the afternoon before the auction, when he toured the humongous Manheim parking lot, looking at car after car and picking out the ones worth his company’s money.

DriveTime’s work starts with a list of every car at the Manheim auction, when it’s computer program whittles a list of thousands down to hundreds of candidates. Nothing too expensive ($10,000 is a rough ceiling) or too old (11 years max). No manual transmissions, no cars from sellers with shady histories. Lots of mileage isn’t a problem, but unknown mileage is a no-go. Anything with a third row is valued, especially Japanese minivans known for reliability, like the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. Beetle convertibles and Pontiac Bonnevilles get crossed off.

Once that list is prepared, the afternoon before the auction, Clint and his DriveTime colleagues, Marlon Barnes and Dennis Galang, split it between them and head out into the field of cars. They’ve can pull up the basic info on each vehicle with a smartphone app—the model, mileage, crash history—but before spending any money, they want to see each one in person.

Barnes starts his inspection of a 2005 Toyota Corolla by walking a wide circle around it. It helps him take everything in, before he gets too close to notice bigger picture issues. He spots a dent in the quarter panel, and that’s a problem: It’s repairable, but not without spending a hunk of cash, and even then it’s a process that would involve messing with the frame of the car—something DriveTime doesn’t like to do. Frame damage weakens the structure of the car, making it less safe in the event of a crash.

Looking for that kind of damage is the main mission of the inspection process. If there’s no obvious damage, Esken, Barnes, and Galang check out the paint job. They run their fingers along the edges of the hood and doors, looking for rough patches—a sign of a body shop’s handiwork. They open the doors and pull out the rubber seals to get a look at the weld job. The small circles in the frame are made by factory machines. If they’re messed up or gone, it’s a safe bet the frame was damaged and repaired. They open the hood and look for chipped paint around bolts, a sign someone took them off with a ratchet (then replaced them).

RY_Autopia_HiRes_3 It’s a busy scene, with a dozen or so cars being sold off at any given moment. Ryan Young for WIRED

If the car has what’s called a “green light”—a guarantee from the auction house that it’s in basic working condition—the whole process takes about 90 seconds. If it’s “red light”—if you buy it, you can’t give it back—the DriveTime guys take more time. They’ll jump in the car and start it up, shift the gears, maybe roll it back and forth. They’ll make sure the windows work.

By day’s end, the team has a list of cars it wants to buy, with an idea of how much it’s willing to spend on each. It’s a tricky calculation, considering how much the car’s really worth and how much they can get for it. A sunroof lets them charge a customer more. Bald tires mean DriveTime has to sink money into replacing them before selling to a customer. The fact that it’s tax season makes everything more valuable: With rebate money in customer pockets and summer vacations coming up, DriveTime can charge more. Things get more meager around Labor Day, when back to school spending leaves people with less money for cars.

Game Day

This morning, the DriveTime guys want to take home just a dozen or so cars, a tiny fraction of the 2,300 on offer. The range of vehicles is enormous: This morning, an Audi R8, McLaren MP4-12C, Tesla P85, and 2014 Porsche 911 will be called out by an auctioneer. They’re the lookers in this field; cars like the Honda Fit, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima are far more common. Then there are the real clunkers, the beat up Chevy vans that huff and rattle their way to the auction block. They’re being sold by places like dealerships (who want to dump traded-in cars) and rental fleets (dumping old models), sent to Manheim to handle the auction and take a cut of the final price.

When the action starts at 9 am, Esken, Barnes, and Galang spread out, each with a list of targets in hand. They’re prepared, because once the bidding’s going, they don’t have time to fumble through their notes. Most cars are sold within 30 seconds, as the auctioneer speeds through the bids, barking “Hip!” with each raise. A pretty blonde in heels walks among the crowds of buyers (about 98 percent male), encouraging higher bids. A man walks between the cars, mopping up oil left behind.

After three hours, they’ve picked up 20 cars, more than they needed. Once the paperwork’s filed, Manheim does a closer inspection before releasing each car to DriveTime. Then the used car company runs each vehicle through a 14-day inspection and repair process, checking that all the vitals work with test drives. If the car’s not up to snuff—which happens about 8 percent of the time—it’s dropped. Otherwise, they make any necessary repairs and cosmetic touchups and send it to one of the company’s 128 dealerships. Then it’s off the customer, who’ll most likely have no idea of the journey their “new” car has taken.

Facebook Messenger Has Finally Broken Free

When Facebook jettisoned all Messenger interactions to a stand-alone app last summer, it was a mild annoyance, an end to the convenience of having the entire Facebook experience in one place.

Now that Messenger also exists as a website, though, it’s clear why Mark Zuckerberg was willing to make that trade. Messenger, freed from your phone, has a better chance than ever to survive as a standalone platform—even after Facebook’s inevitable decline.

It’s important to clarify that “inevitable” doesn’t mean “soon,” and “Facebook” means the core Facebook experience as it exists today, not Facebook the company. They’re important distinctions to make, because they’re the same ones Zuckerberg and his team do as they chart their path forward.

That Facebook as we know it—basically, the News Feed and a smattering of birthday notifications—will eventually lose traction isn’t a controversial thought. It’s just part of the inevitable crests and troughs of social networking. Today’s version of Facebook will continue to exist for as long as its current users stay active, which will be measured in decades, not years. But Facebook knows better than anyone that networks are fickle things, and that teens don’t want to spend time somewhere they can be poked by their parents. Not when they could be Snapchatting.

Just look at the acquisitions Facebook has made over the last several years. More importantly, look at how it’s treated them. Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus—all of them powerful platforms, all of them still standalone apps. Instead of subsuming what it thinks might be Next Big Thing, Facebook has quietly been hedging against its own future by simply buying up all of the candidates. They’ve said as much themselves; in announcing the purchase of Oculus, whose virtual reality technology has taken a leadership role in one of the next great digital frontiers, Zuckerberg repeatedly said that his company was preparing for “the platforms of tomorrow.”

No wonder, then, that Facebook devoted much of its F8 developer’s conference last month to promoting Messenger as its own platform, not a subset. It must have been a joy and a relief to realize that the company was in possession a new social network that not only didn’t cost it billions of dollars to acquire, but had in fact already largely been homegrown. The future is coming from inside the building.

Messenger had already recently added payments, and a handful of GIF-friendly apps. There was enough there to make it feel like its own entity, even if it was essentially the same prom date in a slightly different tux.

A desktop presence, though, allows Messenger to serve a genuinely different function than before. More importantly, and for the first time, it takes on a dimension that it arguably couldn’t have if it were it still just a subset of Facebook proper. Messenger can now compete less with GroupMe, SMS, and WhatsApp (which, again, is Facebook-owned; best not to duplicate efforts) and more with the chat apps that have come to shape how we communicate online during the bulk of the day.

Think Slack, HipChat, Yammer, Gchat, even AIM. They all serve a core function that Facebook hasn’t yet been able to crack, despite attempts like Facebook At Work. Facebook At Work is still Facebook; Messenger is a whole new experience, freed from any entrenched assumptions about what Facebook is or isn’t for.

If you’re doubtful whether this is truly where Facebook is headed, you really only need to check in with AOL. From a help page posting on April 1st:

On April 15th 2015, Facebook is making an update to their API (application program interface) that affects how AIM and other applications connect to Facebook.

As part of the API update, Facebook will remove support for third party clients like AIM to integrate with their chat feature. You will continue to receive Facebook notifications in your AIM Updates feed and everything else you’ve come to know and love about AIM will stay the same.

In other words: Facebook is pulling the plug on its new rivals.

The Messenger Platform is still only a few weeks old; it’s too early to tell just how much of a challenge it can mount to the desktop stalwarts. Plenty of Facebook’s attempts to spin off experiences—Paper and Slingshot come to mind—have fallen flat. But remember that Slack grew from nothing to a billion dollar business in just two years. With the resources and built-in user base Messenger has at its disposal, it’s got plenty of potential.

At the very least, will help you keep your phone in your pocket while you’re at your desk. In time, though, it could become more of a core Facebook experience than Facebook itself has been in years.

Audio Visuals: This Old Scientology Song Sure Is Catchy

This week the music video roundup is a celebration of the medium’s subtle side. Well, mostly subtle; the Paul Walker tribute from Furious 7 will beat you right over the head with your feelings. But besides the touching montage for Walker, the prevailing theme for these selections was solo performances, simple locations with a single subject embodying a narrative. The form has become a staple for Sia with the trio of videos accompanying her three lead singles from 1000 Forms of Fear, but it’s also a great way for lesser-funded talent to make beautiful visuals on a smaller budget. Or at least smaller seeming budgets. As the great Dolly Parton once told us, looking cheap can cost a lot of well-placed money. These videos may lack the pyrotechnics of Axwell and Ingrosso, but the effects are just as potent.

“Placed”—Reid Willis (Above)

Consider this: skull-faced sperm clouds swarming over pastoral landscapes.

“Big Girls Cry”—Sia

The Adventures of Maddie Ziegler, Part 3. This girl is going to have one hell of a chronicle of her strange tween years!

“On the Island”—Brian Wilson feat. She & Him

We don’t normally go in for a lyric video here in the roundup, but this one’s got a special charm, and really makes us want to live that island life—with spaceman helmets!


“American Oxygen”—Rihanna

Who would have guessed that when “Pon de Replay” stormed US shores 10 years ago that this cat-eyed babe would become one of the most prolific hitmakers in music history? Rihanna—aka Robyn Rihanna Fenty—has a baker’s dozen in the Billboard #1s column, tying her with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, for most of all time. If we’re just going by numbers, guess that makes badgirlriri our Queen, and her majesty has something to say about the American dream. (Sorry we can’t show you the full video above, you have to have Tidal for that.)

“We Stand Tall”—The Church of Scientology

All right, so this video came out like 25 years ago, but the recent broadcast of Going Clear on HBO (and this week’s spoof on Saturday Night Live ) has really given it new life, and we would be remiss if we didn’t include Scientology’s catchy—and totally serious and genuine—little ditty “We Stand Tall” in the list of this week’s most buzzworthy videos. Really something special here, guys.

“1983 Squire”—Bloomypetal

If Walter White had lacked the cunning to become a vicious drug kingpin, his foray into meth production might have looked like this, and Breaking Bad would have been an entirely different show.

“Speaking Machines”—We Are Match

Watch this if you want your brain to vibrate.

“See You Again”—Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth

Anyone else have something in their eye that’s making them weep relentlessly? Must be a lot of sand in this room or something because we just can’t stop crying…

“Eternal Sunshine”—Jhené Aiko

We here at the roundup love a video that takes a simple concept and uses it to tell a very big story. Here, the creative team behind Jhené Aiko’s “Eternal Sunshine” manages to pack a whole life into one song using mostly one camera angle. It’s as beautiful as it is sad.

“I Ain’t With You”—Secaina Hudson

Secaina Hudson’s easy charm earns her a high five as our favorite solo performance of the week (sorry, Maddie Ziegler!). She isn’t selling sex. She’s just selling vibe in a crew neck T and hip spectacles. We want to know more. We want to hear more. Well played, Ms. Hudson.

WB Breaks Into the Toys-to-Life Game With Lego Dimensions

StarterPack_Americas_PS4 Warner Bros.

In retrospect, Lego joining in on the toys-to-life genre of gaming seems obvious. This year, Warner Bros. will release Lego Dimensions for Xbox One and 360, PlayStation 3 and 4, and Wii U, an action game that blends Lego versions of characters from many different franchises into one—and requires interactive minifigs to play, of course.

The $99.99 starter pack, pictured above, will include the game, the Lego Toy Pad that lets the figures interact with the game, and minifigs of Batman, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle (the latter being a character from The Lego Movie) when it releases on September 27.

But you’re not done spending money yet, parents! The world of Lego Dimensions will be expandable with $29.99 Level Packs, $24.99 Team Packs, and $14.99 Fun Packs, each of which has some assortment of characters, levels, vehicles, or “gadgets” that can be scanned into the game and used in the digital world.

Here’s an interesting twist: WB promises that the game in the Starter Pack will be compatible with toys, levels, vehicles, et cetera that it will release “for years to come.” So you won’t have to buy another game every year a la Skylanders or Disney Infinity to keep playing with the new toys.

So far, the franchises that will be rolled into Lego Dimensions include The Lego Movie, The Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, The Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future, and Lego’s “Ninjago” line of toys.

No word yet on whether a special “No Fun Pack” will include a tube of Krazy Glue, but here’s hoping.

WIRED Has an Exciting New Way to Build Multimedia Stories

At WIRED we’re always experimenting with new ways to showcase our long-form journalism on the web. In the past, we spent months hand-coding custom templates to give our important stories unique presentations—with dynamic multimedia elements, vivid photography and graphics, and complex animations and special effects. That’s why we’re excited to debut our Feature Story Builder tool, which lets us build high-impact web features in a fast, modular way, without the need to hand-code everything.

We used our new Feature Story Builder tool for the first time last week to produce our exclusive, behind-the-scenes story on the Apple Watch’s design process, and the differences in our workflow and finished feature were immediately apparent.

Historically, some of our most recognized and lauded stories, from our interview with Edward Snowden, to our feature on eradicating polio in remote parts of the world, to our multimedia coverage of the Station to Station art project, were true labors of love, requiring a couple of months of lead time to scope, design, and build. Testing these stories across devices was a complex challenge for our tech team and product managers. But the new Feature Story Builder changes all that.

In building the Feature Story Builder tool, we extracted what we learned from all of the custom executions that we produced before it, and then integrated our styles with the open source WordPress Page Builder tool from the “Make” WordPress theme.

Now, the flexible components of a page can be assembled to construct a WordPress post using a simple drag and drop interface with plenty of customization options. The tool is designed to be extensible, so we can add new elements over time, expanding the toolkit of modules, animations, and styles at our disposal. And, by standardizing some of these capabilities, including full-bleed images and video, parallax effects, wide galleries, and headline effects, we’ve cut the build and QA time for every feature dramatically.

Another benefit of the Feature Story Builder is that the features we build are basically future-proofed. Since we’ll be using the same uniform code every time we build, if we need to redesign or migrate anything in the future, that is now infinitely more possible than before, when everything had custom inline styles that could break in a differently designed site. Our web producers can now select from a simple interface and drag and drop the components they want to construct the DOM of the page. Each component has preset configurable options within it that reference JS and CSS that is global to all posts using this template.

Our web design process has become much easier, too. WIRED’s designers and art directors now know what components are available off the shelf and how they render. Now we’ll only need to do mockups and rounds of detailed reviews when we decide to expand our tool’s feature set.

Please enjoy our first Feature Story Builder feature—an inside look at the design process behind the Apple watch project.

Additional story contributors: Nicole Wilke, Zack Tollman

Cape Watch: Is There Some Sort of Avengers Film Next Month?

In a week when we can only hope Ryan Reynolds doesn’t pull another Deadpool-related hoax between the completion of this column and its publication—seriously, we’re really hoping that doesn’t happen again—it’s time to focus on the important things in life. Like, for example, the fact that we’re less than a month away from the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron (squee!). If you thought that meant a potential winding down of the movie’s heavy promotion, think again, true believers! And for the rest of us, here are the highlights of the last week’s superhero movie news.

SUPER IDEA: ABC Stands for Avengers Broadcasting Company, It Seems

If you can’t wait until May 1 to see the Avengers again, ABC is flexing its corporate sibling muscles (the network, like Marvel, is owned by Disney) to bring the actors together twice before the release of the movie, once on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on April 13 and again on Good Morning America on April 24. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner will be meeting and greeting the television masses to promote the new team-up movie out next month, because the alternative is watching this final trailer over and over again until May 1.

Why this is super: It’s always been clear the cast of the Avengers movies really get on, and they’re all almost offensively charming. Having them all show up on TV to be charming together? That might even be more fun than the movie itself.

SUPER IDEA: Meet the Fantastic Four

While we wait for a new trailer for Josh Trank’s take on Marvel’s First Family, the director and Fantastic Four screenwriter Simon Kinberg have made four videos talking about each member of the super team, as well as the actors playing them, ahead of their big screen debut. Well, re-debut:

Why this is super: OK, so we didn’t really get to learn a lot more about the characters as much as Trank’s love for the actors, but there remains something unexpectedly thrilling about some of the casting choices being made in this movie. (The less said about Doctor Doom being hacker, mind you, the better.)

MEH IDEA: Guillermo del Toro’s DC Movie Might Be Made Without Guillermo del Toro

Dark Universe, a movie featuring some of DC Entertainment’s supernatural and horror heroes—including John Constantine, Swamp Thing, Deadman, and Zatanna—is a project that’s been in development for years, with director Guillermo del Toro having come up with the concept before Man of Steel was even released. Now, it seems, he might not get to bring the project to completion because of scheduling. “It all depends on the calendar, you know?” he told IGN last week. “You cannot say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it after I do this’ or ‘I have the first season of The Strain‘ … [the movie] needs to fall into the plan of the DC Universe.”

Why this is villainy: Del Toro isn’t entirely removing himself from contention for the movie (he said, “If I can do it, I would love to do it,” adding that he thinks that “the screenplay and the characters are very solid”), but the idea of any other director taking on the project at this point feels almost as disappointing as Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man just before shooting. Isn’t there one superhero movie that can keep its auteur director all the way through its creation?

SUPER IDEA: Captain America Will Be Taking It From All Sides in 2016

Quick: who’s Captain America fighting in next year’s Captain America: Civil War? Tony Stark? Well, sure, that’s the entire point of the movie. What about Daniel Brühl’s mystery character, expected by most to be Baron Zemo, neo-Nazi and all-round bad egg? Probably. But, it turns out, he’ll have even more trouble on his plate, with Frank Grillo—who appeared as HYDRA agent Brock Rumlow in the last Cap movie—tweeting a suggestion that he’ll be showing up in the movie as well:

Cap, you better hope you have some super team or another backing you up in the next movie, otherwise you’re going to end up very busy (and probably very sore).

Why this is super: Sure, adding a third source of trouble might seem like overkill, but bringing Rumlow back not only works on a narrative level (he’s normally a flunky, so he could be working for Zemo, making him less an additional threat than emphasizing an existing one) but keeps some feel of continuity between Civil War and 2014’s The Winter Soldier. Now all we need is for Chris Evans’ star-spangled hero to go out in a blaze of glory and get replaced by Sebastian Stan’s Bucky. That’s not impossible, right…?

SUPER IDEA: Deadpool Gets Some Ajax

Yup, spoke too soon. Turns out there is a Deadpool bombshell this week—but it didn’t come from Ryan Reynolds. Ed Skrein, who you might remember from such roles as Guy Who Originally Played Daario Naharis on Game of Thrones, confirmed via Twitter that he will be playing Ajax in the upcoming, definitely-R-rated Deadpool movie.

Why this is super: Ajax is pretty much the reason for Deadpool being Deadpool. (He like invented Deadpool, you know what I mean?) They both came out of the Weapon X facility and spend their time antagonizing and/or trying to kill each other, and Ajax is a huge part of the Deadpool story. Knowing Skrein is already hard at work playing him is good news indeed.

SUPER IDEA: Space Moves to Atlanta, GA

James Gunn has been talking about the progress of the follow-up to last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, telling fans via Periscope that he’s turned in the treatment and is 70 pages into the screenplay and saying that his experience so far was “the best experience [I] ever had with a pitch.” Not only will the main heroes be back for the sequel, but Karen Gillan will be back as Nebula as well, with Gunn having apparently figured out a way for her to show up without having to shave her head again. In a second Periscope session, he revealed production will begin in February 2016, at Pinewood Atlanta Studios, a shift from the London location of the original.

Why this is super: Really, despite its flaws, who didn’t like the first Guardians movie? While we can be cynical about other comic book sequels (there are so many, after all), feeling churlish about another chance to spend time with Groot just seems petty. Roll on, May 2017.

Social Media Needs More Limitations, Not Choices

A billboard displays the Snapchat logo in New York, March 12, 2015. A billboard displays the Snapchat logo in New York, March 12, 2015. Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Corbis

Social media is always updating to give people more. More features like video and picture sharing. More freedom to use third-party apps. More capacity to store more data and make more connections. More platforms so we can use one service while loading another.

Paradoxically, the future of social media is also about providing less. Sometimes the best social media design will constrain invasive and harmful practices. If we want online social interaction to be safe and sustainable, we should embrace the limitations.

Woodrow Hartzog


Woodrow Hartzog is an Associate Professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. His research focuses on privacy and technology. He is also an Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

Last week, the ephemeral media service Snapchat announced that it would render its API inaccessible to third-party applications. This is an important step for the company that promises images that will disappear within seconds. After all, it was third-party Snapchat apps that allowed people to save the hundreds of thousands of snaps that got posted online last year in an event known as “The Snappening.” I previously criticized Snapchat in WIRED for blaming users for the Snappening when it knew that it was vulnerable to third-party apps and failed to ensure that only approved software could access the company’s API.

Now, Snapchat’s is working toward gaining back our trust. We should encourage all social media companies to be similarly vigilant and responsive.

Designing for a Purpose

Will Snapchat’s moves constrain users? Of course. Snapchat has essentially disabled whole categories of popular software. The app stores are already riddled with complaints. Third-party apps can be a great way to use a social media—think of all the poplar third-party clients for Twitter. But Snapchat set itself apart with the promise of ephemerality. It could not pretend it was just another service. And that’s a good thing.

Exceptionalism among apps should be welcomed. People are diverse. Social media should be, too. Different relationships require different tools. Friends, intimate partners, journalists, professionals, political dissidents, and others all use social media in different ways. Given the different needs within these communities, one size will not fit all.

While design is no cure-all, it can be more effective than laws, terms of service, or organizational policies because design affects every user.

This leads us to the issue of design. Software design forces choices that will ultimately shape the tone of the community and users’ actions. Those design choices reflect a company’s values and a software’s purpose. Want to lower penalties for speech? Facilitate anonymity. Want to cut down on online harassment? Simplify abuse reporting. Want to make your users more visible? Set notoriously sticky default privacy settings to “public.”

Each of these design choices leverages transaction costs to influence behavior. Design makes certain behaviors easier or more difficult and as a result, more or less likely to occur. Technological constraints thus help shape our reality, for good or ill.

Design is often overlooked by users and regulators because it is not a panacea. Structural constraints often only mitigate harmful behavior without preventing it. For example, the Snapchat ban on third-party apps will not completely prevent people from saving snaps. People can still capture images through their phone’s screen-shot function or by using another camera. But without third-party apps, saving snaps becomes harder to scale because it is dispersed and, in the aggregate, labor intensive.

While design is no cure-all, it can be more effective than laws, terms of service, or organizational policies because design affects every user. People don’t read the terms of use and they may not be aware of privacy laws, but every single person that uses an app must reckon with the constraints of technology.

We Should Encourage Protective Design

As social media mature, we must realize that constrains can be as useful as options.

We should pay attention when companies provide innovative design solutions to privacy problems and we should balk at designs that reflect carelessness with our personal information, reputation, and relationships.

For example, users of the social app Yik Yak are largely anonymous. Anonymity can facilitate harassment and lead to a toxic online community, but it can also foster honest discussion free from reprisal. As WIRED has noted, Yik Yak has tried to mitigate the dangers of anonymity with a number of innovative, protective design features that constrain users. Yik Yak facilitates geolocation “dead zones” for schools, features a voting function that removes posts receiving five “downvotes,” and prevents full names from being posted by employing filters. When people attempt to post certain threatening language, they receive a “pump the breaks” warning that encourages user caution, reflection, and sensitivity.

While abuse may still occur on Yik Yak, the app’s protective features should be lauded. it proves that there is still plenty of opportunity for Silicon Valley’s trademark innovation in privacy-protective design. Yik Yak is currently testing a photo feature. The app has preemptively banned photos that contain faces, nudity, or or illegal behavior. Yik Yak might consider using facial and object recognition technology to automatically filter some of these prohibited images.

People should also keep a look out for privacy-protective features that let users help themselves and others, like Facebook’s Privacy Dinosaur or YouTube’s face-blurring tool. Platforms can also better protect people through design. App developers are ultimately limited by the features provided to them by a platform. Apple could make it easier for apps like Snapchat running on their iOS to disable a phone’s screen-capture feature, which is already an option for enterprise software.

Technological constraints are a defining characteristic of modern social media. Twitter limits posts to 140 characters. Snapchat makes pictures visible for up to 10 seconds. Yik Yak limits who can see posts to those within a 1.5 mile radius. We are beginning to see the same principles in the design of these companies’ privacy protections. Safe and sustainable online communities require a regularly recalibrated balance between choices and constraints. More is not always better. Thus companies, users, and even regulators must all recognize that in mediated environments, a person’s options can be just as important as their actions.

Amazon’s Smart-Home Hub Has Been Here All Along

Amazon Echo is a voice-activated digital concierge for your home. And it can now control some of the smart devices in your house. Amazon Echo is a voice-activated digital concierge for your home. And it can now control some of the smart devices in your house. Amazon

Despite what the recent Apple Watch hype would have you believe, the next great technological frontier isn’t your wrist. It’s your home.

Specifically, it’s getting all of your connected devices—the Wi-Fi equipped lights, outlets, crockpots, whatever—to communicate both with you and with each other. It’s an area that both Apple and Google have poked at from the edges for years without gaining much traction. And one that Amazon just quietly broke into through the back door.

Wednesday, owners of the Amazon Echo—a voice-activated Bluetooth speaker still only available for purchase by invitation—received an email detailing their little black cylinder’s newfound powers. In addition to streaming music from the cloud, telling you the weather, and tapping into Wikipedia to help settle bets, Echo now supports products from WEMO and Philips Hue. In other words, you can now bark at your speaker to dim the lights.

The products Echo now plays nice with include the WeMo Switch and Insight Switch, which you plug into an outlet to give you limited control over your appliances; Light Switch, which does the same for, well, lights; and a stack of smart bulbs from Philips Hue.

Set-up seems fairly simple. As long as your smart home products are on the same Wi-Fi network as your Echo and you’ve identified them appropriately in their respective apps, you simply need to say “Alexa, discover my appliances.” (Alexa is the name of Echo’s AI personality.) Once discovered, they’re at your literal beck and call.

While there are only eight compatible devices listed, keep in mind that two of those WeMo products can be used control anything from coffeemakers to irons to electric fans. Philips Hue, meanwhile, is so at the forefront of smart lighting that it’s close to synonymous. These are major players, and almost certainly just the foundation of Amazon’s sky-high smart home aspirations.

You could obviously already control your WeMo and Philips Hue devices through apps on your phone. You could even, after a bit of digital elbow grease, hack your way to using Siri for smart home voice control. But Echo represents a potentially seamless, one-stop smart home interface. Not bad for an unassuming Bluetooth speaker.

Sneak Attack

It’s not quite fair to call Echo a Trojan Horse. While Amazon keeps sneaking new features in, they’re all either welcome or easily ignorable. Just over the past few weeks, Echo has picked up Pandora, sports scores, and traffic reports to help get a jump on your commute. It’s more like a cornucopia of minor conveniences.

This particular addition, though, seems to have much grander designs than streaming music subscriptions or learning how runs the Padres gave up. While Apple waits for hardware into which it can funnel its HomeKit ambitions, and Google (despite acquiring smart home heroes Nest and Dropcam) continues to stall out on the Android @Home promises of 2011, Amazon has rightly identified the connected home as an afterthought for most people. Here, buy this stereo, it’s saying. And when you’re ready for a 60w bulb that changes colors on command, we’ll be waiting for you.

Echo's new abilities represent Amazon's continued, unobtrusive insinuation into your home.

That makes Echo a device that’s ready for the future while being useful enough in the present, a powerful combination that none of its rivals has so far matched.

We’ll likely see a similar approach from Apple, which has already planted HomeKit seeds for a future generation of Apple TV. However, that’s a few months away at best. The Echo, if you got in on one of the early invite waves, has been ready and waiting for this update since last December.

Combined with the oddball Dash Button, a device that lets you re-order supplies with a single click, Echo’s new abilities represent Amazon’s continued, unobtrusive insinuation into your home. Rather than introducing new confusions, the company so far is committing itself to reducing friction, be it getting lights to dim without digging out your phone, or conjuring up a delivery of Tide without using any higher-level brain functions.

There’s also ample opportunity for Echo to advance that end even further, according to Forrester Research connected home analyst Frank Gillett. “Amazon has the unique advantage that the Amazon Echo can suggest—or eventually be certified to work with—the products they sell on their Home Automation page,” Gillett suggests over email. That page features thousands of items and thousands of items, most of which are potential partners.

Echo won’t be the most capable smart home hub, or likely the most versatile; as Gillett notes, “it seems Amazon Echo only supports connection via Wi-Fi, which may limit options and speed of response for connecting some connected home products.” And while Amazon hasn’t released sales numbers yet, one would imagine that the audience for Echo’s update today is likely very, very small.

That shouldn’t diminish its importance, though. It’s a sign that Amazon has found its way into your living room before its most ambitious competitors have. And before anyone could have realized it.

Uber’s Colossal, But There’s Still Room for Other Ride Apps

Every startup these days would like to position itself as the next Uber. But for other ride-sharing and car-hailing startups, it seems the trick to getting ahead is being able to prove that you’re anything but.

The fact is, the argument about who’s gunning for Uber has been had, and at this point, there’s no denying that with its meteoric growth and (some would say) insane amount of funding, Uber has taken the lion’s share of the on-demand transportation space. It’s unlikely any company can overtake that lead. So the question to be asking now is not who will beat Uber. It’s whether there’s enough space untouched by Uber to allow other—albeit smaller—players to carve out niche markets of their own.

In a way, Uber may have actually smoothed the path for competitors by defining the broader category in the first place, says Thilo Koslowski, an automotive industry analyst at Gartner. In other words, instead of having to explain their services from scratch, newer companies can just say, “We’re like Uber, but….”

“The challenge for any service in this space is to create a unique value proposition that isn’t ‘owned’ by another company yet,” Koslowski says.

That may be why lately, it seems other ride-related startups have given up on trying to race Uber to the top. Instead, they’re starting to seed the fertile pastures that Uber overlooked along the fast lane to growth. The most recent example is Ride, a startup that launched this week with an app that helps co-workers coordinate carpools to work and defray the cost of commuting. It distances itself from Uber by focusing on commuting and by marketing its service directly to employers instead of consumers.

More Than One Winner

But what may be most interesting about Ride is the fact that it was co-founded by Uber’s founding chief technology officer, Oscar Salazar, and is owned by TPG Growth, an early investor in Uber. This move suggests that although many people believe ride-sharing is a zero sum game, there are plenty of others with deep knowledge of Uber’s business who are willing to bet that it’s not.

“We’ve started a complimentary service, rather than a competitor,” Salazar says, of Uber. “They could do a lot of things, but this is not their focus.”

That’s lucky for Ride, since the commuting market is, itself, a rather large one, with the Census Bureau estimating that 8.1 percent of the American population commutes an hour or more to work everyday. And while Uber has taken hold with the business travel set, it would be a completely unaffordable option for daily commuters. Ride seeks to fill in that gap, helping users save what the company claims is an average of 40 percent on their commuting costs.

“Most of the competitors are in the dispatching space. They change the way you call a taxi or a town car, which is wonderful, but those things happen in large metro markets where black Lincoln towncars and taxis exist,” says Ann Fandozzi, CEO of Ride. “The reason we consider ourselves complimentary is we’re a service for people where that option just doesn’t exist.”

Room for Difference

Ride isn’t the only company trying to compete by differentiating itself from Uber. There’s also FlyWheel, an app that helps connect passengers with traditional taxis, which has taken to marketing itself as the “non-asshole” alternative to Uber. That’s partly because it has sworn off surge pricing and artly because it works with the existing taxi industry, instead of against it.

And then, of course, there’s Lyft, often considered Uber’s most direct competitor. (Its public scuffles with the car-hailing giant are so well-known that there’s now an entire website dedicated to documenting them.) But even Lyft, which still has substantial traction in the industry, has begun to emphasize the parts of its business that are least like Uber, which is to say, the softer side of Lyft.

“We attract the kind of driver who is someone you want to talk to and with whom you’d want to sit in the front seat,” says Lyft’s chief marketing officer Kira Wampler. “These are the kind of drivers for whom this is not being about someone’s chauffeur.”

Lately, that kind of touchy-feely positioning has been at the core of the company’s new products, like Lyft Line, its carpooling service, and Lyft Profiles, which are intended to help drivers and riders get to know each other better. It’s branding, of course, and yet, given Uber’s not-so-friendly reputation, a little branding can go a long way toward for those seeking a less utilitarian experience. “Think about flying between San Francisco and New York,” Wampler offers. “There are many choices, but a lot of us prefer to fly Virgin.”

According to Rajeev Chand, managing director and head of research at Rutberg & Co, there is ample evidence that smaller competitors can thrive even after a market leader has been defined. He believes that’s the likely outcome for the ride-app space. “There will be one major winner which is clear now is Uber, but I think there will be other winners, too,” he says. The challenge for these other players is finding a niche that matters to consumers when Uber’s existing service already works for so many applications.

“I do think it’s possible for some of these apps to survive, but it’s also easy to see there’s going to be a shakeout,” he says. “Then, the question will be: is the psychology of the niche segment different enough from the main car-sharing service that a niche is warranted?”

Ex Machina Has a Serious Fembot Problem

The Turing test detects if a machine can truly think like a human. The Bechdel Test detects gender bias in fiction. If you were to mash the two together to create a particularly messy Venn diagram, the overlap shall henceforth be known as the Ex Machina Zone.

In writer/director Alex Garland’s thought-provoking new film—out Friday—we meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially-intelligent robot. Ava’s creator, genius tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has asked his employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to determine whether Ava’s thinking is indistinguishable from a human’s. Until she meets Caleb, Ava has only ever met her maker and one other woman. (Hence the failing of the Bechdel Test, which stipulates that a movie must feature two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.) Her existence, and her ability to learn how to interact, is a fascinating study of what makes us human.

It’s also a compelling, if problematic, look at the interactions between men and women—or at least that’s what I thought.

While interviewing Garland for a magazine piece, I asked him about the roles of men and women in his film; his response was that Ava is “not a woman, she is literally genderless.” Despite using female pronouns, he said, “the things that would define gender in a man and a woman, she lacks them, except in external terms. … I’m not even sure consciousness itself has a gender.”

In a way, Garland is right; pure intelligence wouldn’t have a gender any more than it would have a race. But to say that and then place that consciousness into a body that it will immediately recognize its likeness as female negates that point. If Ava has truly been educated about the human race, then she knows her face and form appeal to certain segments of the population. But even thornier is the fact that Ava falls squarely into so many of the tropes of women in film. She’s a femme fatale, a seductress posing as a damsel in distress, using her wiles to get Caleb to save her from Nathan and his Dr.-Frankenstein-with-tech-money quest to build a perfect woman. (Women: So much better when you can construct them out of bespoke parts and switch them off if they’re not working properly, amirite?)

Chappie Didn’t Have to Put Up With This Crap

According to Garland, these tropes are intentionally front-and-center. He believes his movie is a commentary on the “constructs we’ve made around girls in their early 20s and the way we condition them culturally” and why Caleb would feel the need to save her from her maker. “You’re supposed to think it’s creepy,” he says. “You’re not supposed to warm to [Nathan] over that stuff, you’re supposed to feel unnerved, and therefore that she needs to be rescued.”

Yet, in the pursuit of that commentary, the movie ends up re-enacting those same patterns. Ava does prove to be the smartest creature on the screen, but the message we’re left with at the end of Ex Machina is still that the best way for a miraculously intelligent creature to get what she wants is to flirt manipulatively. (And why wouldn’t she? All of her information about human interaction comes from her creepy creator and the Internet.) Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?

Ava’s predicament really isn’t that different from many female AIs who have come before her, from Metropolis’ Maria to Her’s Samantha to Blade Runner’s Pris. She is an android in female form, and thus she simply reflects how Hollywood has been depicting women—robotic or otherwise—for decades. In Blade Runner, the male replicants Roy Batty and Leon are struggling to change their short lifespans, while “basic pleasure model” Pris helps the cause by draping herself on J.F. Sebastian. In Prometheus, David is intellectually curious, but never sexualized. (Yet when Idris Elba’s Janek accuses Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers of being a robot, she responds with “My room. Ten minutes.” Because sex is the easiest way to prove you’re a real woman.) Sentient male androids want to conquer or explore or seek intellectual enlightenment; female droids may have the same goals, but they always do it with a little bit of sex appeal, or at least in a sexy package. (Still have doubts? Ex Machina’s marketing campaign at South by Southwest involved Ava showing up on Tinder.)

This tendency to give female AIs the most basic and stereotypical feminine characteristics is, according to Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in the UK, probably a reflection of “what some men think about women—that they’re not fully human beings.” To put a finer point on it, she told Live Science recently, “what’s necessary about them can be replicated, but when it comes to more sophisticated robots, they have to be male.”

When I spoke to Richardson, author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines , she also noted this leads to female robot characters becoming just pieces of full people—a beautiful body, a caretaking nature—but not ones with full intelligence. This is largely true in Ex Machina—and not just because Nathan has a lab full of body parts—but also in a lot of movies where the artificial intelligence has to be packaged in a certain way if the robot is perceived to be female. (She also notes the real robotics world suffers from the same problems as a lot of AI fiction, but that “many robotic scientists are open to a conversation about this.”)

Women, whatever their qualities—intelligent, vulnerable, strong—are always presented in an attractive form, as if the package is the only way to deliver these qualities. Kathleen Richardson

“Sometimes the female robots have ‘violent’ characteristics (as Terminator 3’s T-X character), but it’s always presented in a beautiful form,” Richardson says. “Women, whatever their qualities—intelligent, vulnerable, strong—are always presented in an attractive form, as if the package is the only way to deliver these qualities. Male intelligence, strength, vulnerabilities, etc. can be delivered in a multiple and varied kind of outer packaging.”

Think of it this way: Ava demonstrates her consciousness/intelligence in a form and with a sensuality that David in Prometheus never had to. Short Circuit’s Number 5/Johnny Five was cute, but he never had to employ it for survival the way Pris did in Blade Runner. Even AIs with no physical form at all seem to get sexualized based simply on their voices. It’s not like HAL 9000 ever sparked up a relationship with Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey the way Samantha did in Her. “Her is playing on the fact that the audience knows what [Scarlett Johansson] looks like,” Richardson says. “No one really needs to know who the voice of HAL was, because HAL was an intelligent machine. We need to know about the disembodied voices of our AI avatars if they’re female so that males can buy into the ideas of the sexualized person behind the representation.”

If this argument about the roles women get in movies versus the roles men get is starting to sound familiar, it should. Ever since Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” film critics and fans have been monitoring the ways that women are represented and seen onscreen. (If you’ve heard the term “the male gaze,” this is why.) This ongoing discourse is the reason thing like the Bechdel Test, which started out just as a comic trip referencing Alien , struck a nerve and stuck around. The thrust of Mulvey’s argument is that the bulk of films are seen from a male perspective—that a woman in a film is often “tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Yes, Ava learns to use seduction as manipulation, and the audience might learn how screwed up that is because it’s more blatant when even a robot can pull it off, but Ex Machina doesn’t go any further in deconstructing the problem than that. She’s a bearer, not a maker.

Gender in the Turing Test

To be fair, not all of this is Ex Machina’s fault—or the fault of any AI film. Often, social constructs mandate that we gender most things, whether they’re intended to be gendered or not. Interstellar’s TARS looks like a Mies van der Rohe Kit-Kat bar, yet we refer to TARS as “him.” Is that because of the machine’s deep(ish) voice or because narrative constructs lead us to believe robots with scientific intellectual aims are masculine?

It’s nearly be impossible to tease the two apart, and that knottiness is baked into British computer scientist Alan Turing’s original test in a way that can never be removed. If the goal is for a machine can convince a human that it’s human, then the machine has to assume some kind of gender because we see all humans as having a gender. Even if, in the Turing test model, a judge is just looking at the output of a chatbot, he or she would ascribe gender to the output without even thinking about it. (Note the chatbot that convinced judges that it was real last year did so by convincing them it was a 13-year-old boy named Eugene.)

Ex Machina sidesteps this a bit by making Eva visible; Caleb he knows he’s talking to a robot, and knows what that robot looks like. Nathan just wants to “show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” What Nathan actually wants Caleb to do is something more akin to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test, where the subject can flirt Sean Young-style but you know she’s a replicant. But if that’s the case, why does so much of Ex Machina focus on her proving that consciousness through flirtatious interactions and not, say, a discussion of the horrors of war? Johnny Five discovered mortality by crushing a grasshopper leading to a fear of being switched off, and we felt his plight all the same, why not Ava? (Don’t answer that.)

The thing is, Alan Turing himself actually might have wanted AI to be something akin to what Caleb wants: actual companionship. When WIRED spoke to screenwriter Graham Moore about The Imitation Game back in November he noted that much of Turing’s work in AI was about “bringing Christopher [Morcom, Turing’s first love] back.” But while Turing, if he would’ve ever been able to rebuild Morcom, would’ve been making someone he could talk to and share ideas with, the female representations of Turing’s dream in movies often personify it through far less intellectual pursuits. Think of David in Prometheus; his primary goal was assisting on the mission, not seducing Vickers. As a “male” AI in a film he was given an intellectual pursuit, not a romantic one. Is it possible Ava could’ve convinced Caleb she passed the test with fewer pleading glances and more analysis of world affairs? What would Ava have done to pass if she was a he?

Obviously, wanting affection is part of what makes us human; by showing that, Ava is showing a highly-evolved part of herself. But by only showing that, and her highly manipulative nature, she is left as a less-than-whole character. She’s almost the colder, darker side of Her’s Samantha, who served as a Manic Pixie Dream Operating System. Like Her, Ex Machina is a smart, beautiful film. But when the only female lead in your movie is one whose function is to turn the male lead on while being in a position to be turned off, that says a lot about what you think of the value of women in films. Saying it’s the result of your protagonist being “creepy,” as Garland does, doesn’t really absolve you of that.

Modern Games Are Easily Patched. So How Can We Review Them?

Something weird happened to me last year, when I wrote about a game called Rollers of the Realm . It was a fairly positive review of a unique pinball-role playing game hybrid, with a few caveats, like an impossibly difficult final boss battle.

Towards the end of the review, I noted a funny typo buried in the game’s menu (a character was said to be highly skilled in “marital arts”), and pointed out that it would probably disappear after the game’s first patch or update. It’s a reflection of the reality of today’s constantly updated games that what you play on launch day might not be the same experience months or even days later.

What I did not expect was the game’s developer, a small Canadian outfit called Phantom Compass, would respond thusly on Twitter: “Hey Chris, thanks for the review and feedback! … Should we nerf the final battle a bit?”

My fingers froze above my keyboard. I’ve reviewed a lot of videogames. This was the first time I’d ever had a developer write back to ask if they should make a major change to the gameplay that would impact players’ experiences.

“For me to say would be too much power to invest in one man,” I replied. “But maybe.”

This was a profoundly strange situation to find oneself in. Prior to this I’d considered a game review to be more or less a postmortem. But in the case of Rollers of the Realm, it was clear that the developers were taking the initial batch of reactions as something of a beginning. And why not, when games are so malleable today after they launch?

So, where does this leave the “game review?”

In general, gaming enthusiast sites that publish reviews day in and day out have had to think about this quite a bit over the last few years, as the nature of a typical “game launch” has changed from a complete product being pressed to discs and sent to stores to an incomplete game being rolled out in stages onto online servers.

When Vox Media launched Polygon in 2012, it said that it would not leave its reviews untouched, as a static archive of how the game performed on the day the review went live. It would not hesitate, it said, to update a review and alter the score if it felt that the game’s quality had improved—or declined—after the review embargo was lifted.

In an extreme case like Electronic Arts’ SimCity, which was excellent when reviewers played it prior to the game’s launch on private servers but utterly failed to function once it was available at retail, it lowered the review score, from a 9.5 (out of 10) to a 4.

SimCity Hotels Block Electronic Arts

Earlier this year, Polygon went even further; after a holiday season of similar broken games including Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which worked fine prior to launch but collapsed upon release, it said it would introduce “provisional reviews.” It will still score the games, but the review will not appear on the Metacritic aggregation website until after the game’s release.

Other websites have not gone so far as to formalize the policy, but other sites have begun to publish more “reviews in progress”—stories that evaluate the game when the review embargo goes up, but refrain from rendering a final judgment until the writer has had more time with the final product.

These sorts of moves are more to ensure that a publication doesn’t end up with egg on its face if the final product ends up differing significantly from what was provided for review. But as my experience with Rollers of the Realm shows, the nature of reviews is changing even if the review is perfectly in sync with the final product—because the “final” product isn’t what people buy on day one.

I was reminded of this recently because Nintendo just released a patch for its recent Nintendo 3DS game Code Name S.T.E.A.M.. It’s a turn-based strategy game that got mixed reviews, but one point that almost every review, positive or negative, had in common was that it took far too long and was far too boring to wait for the enemy characters to take their turns.

Waiting around for aliens to make their decisions and scurry around the battlefield was a big pain in the ass and probably ended up lowering the game’s aggregate score, just by itself. Now, Nintendo was introducing a patch that would eliminate that problem.

rollers Phantom Compass

It’s especially interesting that Nintendo, the most conservative, insular company in the whole game industry, would make such a major change to its design post-release, based on feedback. That, more than anything, tells me that these sort of post-launch changes can happen to any game, anytime, in today’s world.

What, then, should writers do? It’s likely that this is a big enough change to the game that Polygon, which hammered on this as a major issue and scored S.T.E.A.M. a 3.5, would go back and issue a review update. Other writers may also see fit to do this.

I would never suggest that it is incumbent upon everyone who wrote about the game to revise their reviews, as that introduces a precedent that is absolutely impossible to maintain; I already would never, ever envy anyone that has to run the reviews section of a gaming enthusiast website, as it involves insane work hours just to keep up with all the major releases, let alone go back and update each one as the game is tweaked. (Moreover, an online publication is an archive, a record of what happened on that day, and not a wiki that must be endlessly updated.)

How this really changes reviews is how it will affect a writer who sits down to pen one (or a YouTuber who sits in front of their camera). The era of review-as-postmortem is giving way to the era of review-as-wishlist; less a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of a product that’s finished, and more of a discussion of concrete improvements we’d like to see in the first patch. The fact that even brick-wall Nintendo is responding so quickly in the case of S.T.E.A.M. is an indication that it is actually possible to get fixes implemented in a relatively short time.

As for Rollers of the Realm, I checked today and it turns out they did make the final boss battle easier, just one week later. I’d already moved on to other games by then.